At 35, Pushpinder Singh realised something: he did not want to die without having tried his hand at starting a successful company. The startup gene was always in him but stability and a steady income were more important at the time. “There were some financial issues and I had to support my family,” he says. After having worked at Quark Xpress, Tata group and Sprint Communications, Singh decided to start up on his own. He co-founded a shipping technology company called Applied Research International in 2003 before he realised that shipping was not his calling. “I always wanted technology to address an important need; one that would help people and society at large,” he says. Once, while travelling to New York, he found it difficult to hail a cab at the John F. Kennedy International Airport as all the taxis had been pre-booked. He had to ask a friend to pick him up. “That was a disastrous experience,” he says. Another time, Singh had to go hungry during a train journey because the train was passing through a Naxal-dominated area and all the food stalls had closed early.
A clutch of similar travel experiences got Singh thinking: Why not start a company that would address an important need in the travel sector? This was not easy as travellers were always on the move since the arrival and departure timings of planes and trains varied. One needed technology to track their movements. After doing preliminary research, Singh realised that the opportunity lay in the food and taxi segments. “I wanted to do something like food on arrival and taxi on arrival for air travellers,” he says. However, he quickly realised that there was no scope in the air travel sector. If the idea had to click with the masses, it had to be trains.
There was a sizeable difference in scale in the two categories: 16 crore people travel by air across the country in a year and 2.5 crore people travel by train every day. This was a huge market waiting to be tapped. Singh decided to focus on food delivery for train travellers, started writing algorithms, and launched Travelkhana in 2012. Travelkhana is essentially an aggregator of restaurants around the country; it helps you order meals for train journeys. You can book your meal before starting the journey or book it while on the move, paying online or upon delivery. Travelkhana’s technology tracks the real time movement of trains so even if a train is late, food is made available at the chosen station. “Although initially it was difficult to imagine that food could be delivered in the five to ten minutes a train stops at a particular station, we have proved that it is possible,” says Singh. The potential for a startup like Travelkhana is evident when one does the math. Three billion meals are consumed every year on Indian trains and there are only 180 trains with pantry cars.
Travelkhana’s vendor development team went across the country, telling restaurants about the concept and tying up with them. The challenge was in making the restaurants understand the importance of quality and time; ensuring that the kitchen is clean and that the food is packed properly. Today, the company has tied up with 1,100 vendors, including some prominent ones such as Kanha in Jaipur, Havmor, which has six outlets in the country, and Faaso’s in Chennai. It delivers food across 190 stations.
However, even after bootstrapping to start the venture, Singh couldn’t make ends meet. Fortunately, he was able to persuade Matteo Chiampo, an Italian-American citizen and former co-founder of Eko Financial Services, to invest in Travelkhana. This was followed by a round of funding from Rajan Anandan, Google India head, and Alok Mittal, former managing director of Canaan Partners.
Customers seem to be happy with the service. Earlier, when Shrabani Bose planned 10-day trips with her family every quarter, she would cook and pack meals for all her eight family members as she trusted neither the pantry food nor the eateries at railway stations. Thus, planning trips was a tedious process. During their last trip from Howrah to Shirdi, Shrabani decided to try out Travelkhana and booked for food to be delivered at Allahabad Junction. “I could choose from a range of restaurants offering a variety of food,” she says. “The food was promptly delivered at Allahabad. It was nice, fresh and well-packed. The quantity, too, was satisfactory.” The meals are reasonably priced. A regular thali will cost around Rs150. Even though the pantry food in trains is cheaper, it is less hygienic and tasty. Travelkhana also offers meals costing Rs100 at 60 stations. Twenty per cent of the bill goes to the startup.
Travelkhana is witnessing a 20 per cent growth every month. “We hope to quadruple it every year for the next three to four years,” says Singh. It is not just the startup that is gaining. There has been a 20 to 30 per cent increase in the income of the restaurants after the tie-up. Some of them have hired extra staff to meet this new demand.
Last year, Travelkhana got a bulk order from the YSR Congress, which booked eight trains for its members going to Delhi for a protest. The first meal was to be served at Nagpur. As the delivery boys came with the food packets, they were waylaid by a large crowd that grabbed the packets. The portal, however, managed to transfer the meals to the protesters at the next station and, thankfully, no one was left hungry.
The startup processes approximately 3,000 orders every day. Its closest competitor—IRCTC’s e-catering—processes only five or six orders. “The online model requires technological capabilities to scale up which IRCTC does not have,” says Singh, who is toying with the idea of having representatives placed inside the trains to take orders on tablets which can then be forwarded to the restaurant.
Choosing the wrong company or person to work for you in order to save cost
Flying a fighter plane, a dream I continue to harbour
On speed dial
My wife and management team, who are like co-founders
A small room in Laxmi Nagar, a market area in Delhi
Top on to-do list
Running, watching the occasional movie and spending time with wife and son